An underground meat industry in Northern Ireland may be slaughtering hundreds of rustled sheep in unregulated health conditions, it has been claimed.
Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann said highly-organised criminal gangs behind massive livestock thefts may be running a black market in meat.
On Wednesday a Co Antrim farmer discovered sheep worth £15,000 had been stolen from a field just 300 yards from his home.
The theft of the 144 animals came just days after more than 200 sheep — worth an estimated £25,000 — were stolen in the Loughgiel area, also in Co Antrim.
Mr Swann said the thefts have caused great concern in the farming community, as the culprits were threatening to put farmers out of business.
“This is highly organised serious crime,” he added.
“To steal near enough 400 sheep within days, you need to have a ready market.’’
“One of the major concerns is that there may be an underground meat market running now within Northern Ireland,” he said.
“The meat will be killed and processed, then sold.
“We could be looking at all sorts of health factors and food risks if they are not being slaughtered under the proper regulations.”
The latest theft happened some time between Monday and Wednesday of this week at the Knowehead Road, Broughshane.
Farmer Andrew Armstrong (39) discovered almost half of his flock had been taken.
“I counted up and realised there were 144 missing,” he said.
“It’s going to be hard to cope with at the minute, but hopefully something can be done and they can be caught.’
“It’s just getting too rife round here. It’s somebody who knows what they are doing.”
The animals were crossbreeds, known as mules, with blue markings. Most were tagged.
Earlier this week Ballymoney farmer Ken Lamont said he was facing financial ruin after sheep worth £25,000 were stolen. In all, he lost 214 animals.
Police have warned the public to be vigilant and to report suspicious activity.
PSNI Chief Inspector Bryan Hume said he was concerned.
“We are not talking about 20 or 30 sheep in these cases but hundreds, and somebody must know something about them,” he said.
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